The Axman of New Orleans: When Death showed a taste for jazz
It was spring 1919, and the city of New Orleans was on edge after a series of midnight slayings in which people were brutally attacked in their beds by a shadowy, ax-wielding intruder. Then, on March 13, a person claiming to be the killer wrote a letter to The Times-Picayune, taunting police and promising to claim more victims five nights hence. But there was a catch: Homes from which he heard “a jazz band in full swing” at exactly 12:15 a.m. would be spared. He signed his letter “The Axman.” No killings were reported that night, but The Axman would eventually strike again. By the time his last suspected slaying occurred on Oct. 27, 1919, he had killed as many as 10 people — and New Orleans had its own Jack the Ripper.
There has been a fair bit of research regarding the identity of the killer, with a pharmacist named Joseph Momfre emerging as a favored candidate. Police never officially solved the Axman case, though, leading to a century of speculation as to the killer’s true identity. In the meantime, the case has taken on a mythological air, drifting over the years into the realm of that staple of New Orleans atmosphere: legend.
- The killer’s modus operandi was similar in many cases attributed to him: He would chisel out a wooden panel on a door in the middle of the night, then attack his victims with an ax or similar implement while they were in bed. That led the city’s police superintendent Frank T. Mooney to reveal in March 1919 that he believed the killings were the work of a single person.
- It’s unclear how long The Axman was active in New Orleans. Mooney postulated he may have started as early as 1915. Consequently, the number of his victims is hard to pin down, although estimates run as high as 18 people attacked — 10 of them injured fatally — in 10 separate incidents.
- Because many of those on the list of Axman’s victims were Italian — with names like Maggio, Cortimiglia, Pepitone and Romano among them — one theory is that the killings were Mafia-related. That theory is refuted by some, however, given that women and children were included in the victims, a violation of a perceived Mafia code of honor.
- The last believed victim of The Axman was Mike Pepitone, a grocer attacked by a home invader in October 1919 in his store at South Scott and Ulloa streets.
- In 1921, Pepitone’s wife, Esther — who had since remarried and moved to Los Angeles — was arrested after shooting a man eight times in Los Angeles. That man: Momfre, the pharmacist whom some believe was The Axman.
- A fictionalized version of The Axman appeared in the New Orleans-set third season of the FX anthology series “American Horror Story.” He was played by actor Danny Huston.
Part of the mystique of New Orleans lies in the well-established ground the city has staked out at the intersection of darkness and light. There are its entrenched voodoo traditions, juxtaposed with its deeply Catholic roots. There is the sinfulness of Mardi Gras, followed by the solemnity of Lent. There is the dance-from-the-graveyard tradition of its jazz funerals. And there is the legend of The Axman, an irresistible, only-in-New-Orleans blend of jazz music and “a fell demon from hottest hell,” as the Axman described himself in that now-infamous letter. In what other city in the world, after all, would a letter from a purported serial killer generate this headline, published in The Times-Picayune after The Axman’s infamous letter?: “Jazz Bands Blare for Axman Who Stays Away From City; Threat of Mysterious Writer of Note, Who Claimed to Be Murderer, Gives Splendid Excuse for Merry-Making.” Splendid? Merry-making? On a story about a serial killer? Welcome to New Orleans.